Welcome to episode three of this scattershot examination of the Nintendo 64, a console that has seen renewed nostalgic interest after its recent incorporation into Nintendo's Switch Online subscription service. As someone whose writerly pursuits err more towards the overly dramatic than the drily informative, I've decided my own exploration of Nintendo's foggiest system should have as much self-destructive nonsense as possible.
The rules, in short:
- There are two or three N64 games. I play each of them for sixty-four minutes. One is pre-selected, the rest are randomly chosen from a master list that includes all 388 releases for the system. Yes, including both Doraemon games.
- Four status reports for each, spaced sixteen minutes apart. These include observations about the gameplay, the visuals, my progress, and whether or not I want to jump out of the nearest window at that moment.
- Is this game something that is likely to appear on the Nintendo Switch Online service? Should it be on there? Why are there so many sports games for the system? I answer these questions as best as I'm able.
Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon (Pre-Selected)
: Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon, also known as Ganbare Goemon: Neo Momoyama Bakufu no Odori in Japan, is either the twelfth or thirteenth (depending on who you ask) game in Konami's Ganbare Goemon franchise and the second (alongside the second Game Boy game Ganbare Goemon: Kurofune Tou no Nazo, released the same month) to be localized for international audiences. The plot, such as it is, sees the noble thief Goemon, his lazy ninja sidekick Ebisumaru, their robotic friend Sasuke, the half-mermaid kunoichi Yae, and the global movie superstar and giant alien robot Impact unite together to take down the Peach Mountain Shoguns - led by villains Spring Breeze Dancin' and Kitty Lily - who have transformed Oedo Castle into a European Chateau and have similar designs for the rest of Japan's architecture. The game presents a heady mix of platforming, action, adventure, one-on-one mech battles, and pure nonsense.
A little inside baseball as to how I choose these "pre-selections." Most of the time I'm looking into well-regarded N64 games I never got around to playing back in their time. Not only does this offer exciting new experiences for me, but it means I can carefully review the games without my nostalgia fudging the results. However, there are and will be weeks for 64 in 64 where the randomly chosen picks are so abysmal that I sort of need to take a "me day" with the pre-selects. That's why, occasionally, I'll toss in an old favorite instead and luxuriate in its familiar warmth prior to the terrors to come.
Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon is easily in my top ten games for the N64: it's endlessly delightful and creative - it beat Ocarina of Time to the system's first big open-world action-adventure - and while the localization can be spotty with its grammar and syntax it does its best to recreate the very Japanese humor of the original, starting the game by having perverted ninja Ebisumaru performing a "hypnotic" (read: naked) dance routine to score a discount at the local grocer's. I'm sure I'm preaching to the choir, however: Giant Bomb premium subscribers can check out Ben Pack and co.'s full LP of the game if they haven't already.
16 Minutes In
I indulged myself by watching the game's intro and theme tune again before hitting the ground running, working entirely off my memories from twenty-plus years ago. You first need the chain pipe with its grappling ability to get into Oedo Castle, the first of the game's dungeons, and to do that you need to visit the pipe maker Mokubei on top of Mt. Fuji. I love that the game's first simple objective is to climb to the top of Japan's tallest mountain; it's a relatively short trip at least, intended to teach you the basic controls before introducing Goemon's most useful weapon and the first of the game's many traversal-enabling items.
I'll admit to spending some time talking to the NPCs around town before finding the right exit: some have useful hints for you, or direct you to the fortune teller Plasma Man if all else fails, but many of them just tell you the weirdest shit. Like the guard who threatens criminals with his "Atomic Stick" or the guy who is so distracted by his cute dog that he somehow missed the giant peach-shaped Independence Day spaceship flying overhead. One old guy just says "Huh? UFO? I'm 85 you know!".
32 Minutes In
After visiting Mokubei, I went back to town grabbing the world map at the Kai Highway rest-stop along the way (last time I played I forgot all about it and got pretty lost) and then went into Oedo town proper to check out the amenities. Mystical Ninja 64 is already so ambitious that I could forgive it for losing the big number of mini-games that the SNES game had - among others, a lottery, a 3D maze exploration game, gambling, trivia, and Gradius for some reason - but there's still some useful ports of call. I stocked up on an armor item - almost all armor in Goemon is finite, and will protect against a certain number of hits before breaking - and a healing item that activates upon death, similar to a Zelda fairy. After that, I reached the gates of Oedo Castle just as the second timer went off.
This game is still a lot of fun, even if it is a bit on the sluggish side. I remembered that you could bring up the mini-map with the C-right button if you get too lost, but despite Oedo Town's many transitions it's basically a big circle with three exits: Kai Highway, which led to Mt. Fuji; Oedo Castle, where I am now; and the road out of town, which is presently blocked until I get a "super pass" from the Lord of Oedo, whom I am here to rescue. My original goal for the 64 minute mark is to meet Impact, though I suspect I've forgotten how long the Oedo Castle dungeon is...
48 Minutes In
The dungeons in Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon are as traditional Zelda dungeons as you're likely to find: not only is there a map that you must find first (via the statue of an elephant called Mr. Elly Fant) and a compass that directs you to the boss (Mr. Arrow, a statue of a pointy guy), but most of the rooms require some kind of puzzle or combat challenge to overcome in order to recover keys that unlock the way forward. I made decent enough time but the stopwatch went off just before the first boss, the giant fire-breathing robot head known as Congo.
64 Minutes In
Honestly, I probably should've just finished off the boss and seen how far away I could get from Oedo Town, but my darn completionist brain worms took over and I re-entered the dungeon after clearing it to find a passage that was previously blocked by a giant hand: I recalled that these hands belonged to Congo and would no longer present an obstacle once he was defeated. Alas, I don't think there's a way to teleport out of dungeons you've already completed (that'll be something Ocarina has over this game, since there's a song you can use to warp to the start of indoor areas) so I was stuck making my way back when the final buzzer sounded. All in all, though, completing the first dungeon of the game within the first hour is an acceptable result.
: Great. Mystical Ninja does run into some of the more conventional issues of early 3D platformers (chiefly relating to the camera) but its personality and imagination help it move past some of its rougher combat and platforming aspects. Having all those NPCs around commenting on your adventure and cracking dumb jokes makes it feel more lively, and while the adventure is largely a linear one - most of the time you're either in a dungeon, heading to the next dungeon, or looking for the item/upgrade/person to let you access the next dungeon - there's plenty of level design variety along the way. It left me wanting to play more as soon as the hour was up, and that's about the best result you can ask for with this project.
: Well, now, this one's a bit trickier to answer because we're talking Konami here. Of late, Konami seems resistant to do much of anything game-related and when they do they usually mess it up somehow, like their recent botched attempts at a Metal Gear Solid and a Contra. However, the Castlevania Advance Collection does make me hopeful that they're looking to do right by their older stuff in the future, and agreeing to let Nintendo host some of their N64 games would be a good - and not particularly intensive - use of their time. (In addition to Goemon and its sequel, they also have two N64 Castlevania games, the divisive Hybrid Heaven that may be a "stay tuned" as a pre-selection, and Rakugakids.)
: 2 (of 44). Most of these are damage-less boss fights and normal progression, though there's some odd ones too (own exactly 777 ryo, or beat every boss as Ebisumaru).
F-1 World Grand Prix II (Random #1)
: A Formula One racing game based on the 1998 season and a sequel to an earlier N64 game, F-1 World Grand Prix II was notable for its high level of realism. Its developers, Paradigm, previously focused on general 3D computer modelling until they were recruited by Nintendo to help develop Pilotwings 64, one of the system's launch titles. Afterwards, they worked on several more N64 games with heavy sim elements - mostly racers and flight sims. They were acquired by Infogrames (i.e. Atari SA) shortly after this game's release and then bought again by THQ in 2006 before shutting down in 2008.
How the hell did this even happen? Two F1 games in two weeks? So, yeah, there are four F1 games for the N64 and after this week's episode I will have played half of them. Regardless, the random selection process is sacrosanct so I guess I'm back here again with these open-wheeled menaces for more circulatory boredom. As was the case with last week's F1 game, F-1 World Grand Prix II was a European exclusive: the only version of this game that North America received was the Game Boy Color port, so have at it realistic racing fans.
16 Minutes In
For this spin with F1 I started with a basic exhibition race on a track I'd not seen before as a warm-up. Monte Carlo, unsurprisingly given it takes place in the streets of a city, was another very twisty track that made me glad I turned realistic damage off because I must've slammed into every barrier at least once and terrified a bunch of Monacans (Monacites? Monakos?). Already I think I prefer this F1 game to the previous (F1 Racing Championship): in addition to being a bit chunkier (in a good way) with the vehicle's handling, you also have your support dude piping over the radio with frequent updates including far away the guy in front is, how far away the guy behind you is, whether or not your last lap was your best yet, and other useful observations. Took me a second to realize he wasn't in the passenger seat though: that's how well-versed I am with Formula One. There was also some rain that cleared up during the race, so that was a cool feature I didn't see too often with the 16-bit racing games (generally, any weather effects remain active for the whole race).
All that said, I'm clearly still garbage at these realistic racing sims and am in no hurry to learn how to improve. I opted for a Grand Prix just so I wouldn't have to keep going through menus to pick the next track, and was in the middle of the qualifying rounds on the first track (Australia) while the screenshot was taken. Incidentally, I'm "main"ing David Coulthard of Team McLaren this time around.
32 Minutes In
Yep, still in the same qualifying race. I neglected to check how many laps these races would have and it turns out this qualifying thing has 12 laps total; I managed to complete ten of them since the last update. Some odd things started happening in this race, both equally eerie: the first is that, about six or seven laps into this race, I started hearing the sound of phantom racers and eventually even saw one - the red Williams car that you can just about see in this screenshot. This car would pull ahead and then suddenly veer to the side with a loud screech, so I suspect it's someone who previously died on this course and is either looking for vengeance or a kindred racer spirit. Of course, this should come as no surprise to F1 fans: formula one, the alchemical concoction that the races are named after, was first invented as a means for magicians to communicate with the dead and learn their secrets.
The second, perhaps even stranger occurrence is that, according to the voiceover guy, I spent every lap going from 22nd place all the way up to 22nd place and then onto 22nd place (which is dead last, I probably don't need to say) until suddenly I finished a lap and the guy said I was now in 14th place. Apparently, completing a dozen laps of the same track will eventually lead to marked improvement, who'd have thunk. I've since slipped back down to a respectable 18th but for one brief shining moment I almost felt competent at this game.
48 Minutes In
Though I only qualified for 18th place on the starting grid, in the race itself I managed to squeeze ahead to 6th place, scoring myself a single point in the process. Woohoo! I'm a raceman! Unfortunately, the second leg of the Grand Prix was set in that nauseatingly twisty Brazilian course I crashed and burned on (not literally) in the previous week's F1 game, so instead of doing 12 laps of that horror show I dropped out to try a few of the other courses in the Time Trial mode. They have Formula One in Canada, turns out, so I went to Montreal to see what that was like. So far, so... acceptable? There's some hairpins but it's otherwise not so bad. I do miss having opponents to ram into though, so I might switch back to Exhibition mode once I'm done here.
One thing I like about this game and its dedication to realism is how dynamic a race can be. By which I mean, I was getting status reports of people dropping out due to technical failures or what have you and it was rad knowing that other drivers were having their own misadventures irrespective of my presence and not just because it meant I moved one position ahead by default. I haven't seen any non-temperate weather since that first Monte Carlo race, and I'm half tempted to stick on a blizzard or high winds to see how badly it could mess me up.
64 Minutes In
In a time trial the only opponent is the best lap ghost, and after being haunted by my own specters for a while - i.e. the same thing that happens every night before I drift off - I switched over to one last Exhibition race on my home turf: Silverstone, in "Britain" (technically correct). I did fairly well here in the other F1 game so I was hoping to translate that success in this more simmy environment but I ran into an issue straight away when the race started with sunny weather, 28 degree Celsius temperature, and no chance of rain. I thought this was supposed to be a realistic simulation? RetroArch thought so too, because it immediately crashed upon starting the race and by the time I'd worked my way through all the menus to get back in it had switched over to something far more rational: extreme rain and fog (though the latter might just be the N64).
I finished sixth yet again after getting T-boned out of nowhere near the end by an AI - I didn't think they could do that, since unlike me they were making some effort to drive professionally - but I can be pleased that I did well enough to score points again. Well, point. Singular.
: Badly? But that's to be expected. There's little reason to play these ancient F1 games when the newer ones give you so much more of what you're looking for, including (probably) the 1998 season's heavy-hitters if you were more invested in the historical angle. On the plus side, I could more appreciate the distance between this game and the many 16-bit F1 racing games I briefly delved into while working on various wiki projects: on top of being 3D there were many more enhancements to make it feel like you were there for real, between the reactive radio chatter and CPUs suddenly pulling out of the race or taking a bad corner just before I overtook them, which are events you rarely see in anything that isn't a serious racer now - most AI just unerringly trundle along the track at a moderate speed until, well, you happen to them.
: Moving past the likelihood of an older game with a pro sports license ever seeing daylight again, F-1 World Grand Prix II is one of several cases where both its developer and publisher are long gone. However! All of Video System's IPs were picked up by nostalgia merchants Hamster Corp. recently and that package almost certainly included this game. Suspect they might have other priorities for that library though (Aero Fighters, for one).
NBA Live 99 (Random #2)
: The fifth entry in EA's annual NBA Live basketball franchise, NBA Live 99 was released on N64, PC, and the PlayStation 1. Its developer, NuFX, worked with EA on several of their PGA and NBA ports around this time: for NBA Live 99 they only created the N64 version, while the others were developed by EA Canada. NuFX is perhaps best known outside the EA Sports bubble for their Mega Drive tie-in pinball game Crüe Ball and the original Game Gear version of Surf Ninjas, a game with the unusual privilege of having a major role in the movie it was adapted from. Like any company that works too closely with EA, NuFX were absorbed into the hivemind and the brand they had worked to build was left discarded.
After today, I'm imposing a strict "one sports game per episode" rule. That includes motorsports. Hell, I'll throw wrestling in there too, possibly from the top rope. I did not anticipate this series would become so cursed so quickly, but perhaps that speaks more about the N64 library than I was willing to accept. I say all that, but the EA Sports franchises are nothing if not competent and I like basketball more than most American sports. Hell, I even used to play it in middle-school (yes, yes, I was the basketball) so I'll save the griping for when shogi and pachinko show up.
(For stats fans: There are ten other N64 games with "NBA" in the title which, when added to Fox Sports College Hoops '99, means there's an approximate 3% chance of rolling another basketball game anytime soon. Just putting that out there in case you see another NBA game next week.)
16 Minutes In
Warming up with an exhibition match between the Bulls (me) and the Jazz, I was able to quickly figure out which one of the N64's two face buttons does a pass and which one does a shot and I was pretty much set. They make these games to be idiot-proof after all, and I don't need to know how many turnovers and pullovers and handovers I ought to be making to appreciate some good slams and jams. It also gives me a rare excuse to polish up my already perfect b-ball commentary: for instance, there was the time Rodman delivered the egg to Pippin who then fed it through the baskethole to give everyone a very happy Easter.
Anyway, I'm up by sixteen points halfway through the last quarter and I don't think Utah's too jazzed about that. Just need to figure out how I want to fill the other forty-eight minutes...
32 Minutes In
Decided to try the Playoffs mode with a new team and a new difficulty level, since Rookie difficulty with the Bulls seems a bit too Baby's Nursery Corner even for the hoops-deficient. Making a not-so-lateral move I opted for the Sacramento Kings because
they have "Mento" in their name of my shrewd understanding of the NBA at this point in history and my first draw was against... the New York Knicks. That shouldn't be too hard, right? After the first half I'm only a few points ahead; I'm enjoying the game a bit more with the added peril. The other team is thieving the ball so often I've taken to calling them "Stealie Knicks."
Some stray observations:
- I think I've heard the commentator say "nailed the J" approximately six thousand times already. There are other ways of saying "scored a basket," my guy. Try this on for size: Blessed the hoop with a handsome visitor. OK, not that one.
- The CPU has this odd habit of doing instant replays at random intervals, and almost every time it's the CPU side scoring. Why does EA think the player wants to see the AI dunking on them over and over?
- When the buzzer goes everyone stands completely still and the ball just kinda sadly bounces to a standstill. It's a little surreal, like in the movies when someone says something embarrassing at a party and there's a record scratch and everyone stops what they're doing to stare at them. Is that a NBA rule that you have to go full statue when the quarter's over? Is it like Squid Game where you get shot if you move an inch?
- Occasionally, like every thirty seconds, a military bugle goes off and everyone cheers. Big audience of Civil War re-enactors in tonight.
48 Minutes In
I forgot that standard Playoffs mode involves playing against the same team multiple times in a row, so I switched to Season mode to see how far I could take the Kings. The team selection screen is way more in-depth with stats in Season mode: from here I learned that the Kings are the 25th highest ranked team (out of 29?) which didn't seem particularly great, but then it's always more fun to play as the underdogs.
I've been briefly tempted, once or twice, to figure out what any of these other buttons do. I'm curious which button that lets you shove over the rival team with impunity since the CPU really likes that one.
64 Minutes In
It's the C-buttons, got it. This just went from a nice friendly game of passing-the-ostrich-egg to Midway's Arch Rivals, where we're both shoving each other to the ground so often it's like we're fighting over lunch money rather than the playoffs. After a narrow victory over the San Antonio Spurs with 24-22 for their first season game, the Kings then took on the Diston Pisstroits (I wasn't paying attention) before the final buzzer - my own - sounded to indicate I was done with all the basketball for what I hope is a long while. I retire from the courts undefeated, the King of the Kings.
: Meh. It's entirely playable, even though all those '98 All-Stars rendered as GoldenEye 007 characters probably isn't something that has held up as well as the core gameplay. (It is weird that Rodman never played a Bond heavy, but then Double Team was probably more than enough.) If I was a bigger proponent of the sport I could've taken advantage of all the menu extras and team management features but I always approach every sports game like an arcade thing where I just want to jump in, slam some hoops, and maybe body a dude so hard they go sliding across those waxed floors into the ringside seats. NBA Live is still capable of all that: you don't become the biggest sports franchise by only playing to the simulation diehards after all.
: Minimal. No-one's champing at the bit for a sports sim 24 years out of date. EA could do it in a heartbeat if they really wanted, though - they're in decent enough shape as of writing.